Hand of God begins with Ron Perlman in a public fountain, naked and speaking in tongues. This is shot in faux-epic swathes of hyper-realistic grace by director Marc Forster (his pedigreed name attached to the series’ pilot like a parachute to a plummeting anvil) for maximum portent: Get ready, audience—some real dramatic shit is about to happen.
The show is the latest original series from Amazon, given a full-season run after subscribers OK’d its continuation care of a preview episode last year (similarly we’ll see The Man In the High Castle hit the service soon enough). In it, Perlman plays Pernell Harris, a judge and ersatz king of fictional San Vicente, CA, in much the same way he played Clay Morrow throughout however many grueling seasons Sons of Anarchy thought were necessary: gruff and straining to legitimize his gruffness. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t buy Perlman as a judge—for the record, I don’t, but that’s only because in two episodes we only see him in court for a total of about 90 seconds, during which he acts in such a non-judge-like manner there’s little reason to believe he’s got a brain filled with meticulous statutory rules—it just means that everything about Hand of God is so obvious it hurts…both itself and those willing to endure the series’ brooding, suffocating pace.
Because, spoiler alert: A lot of depressing, practically tasteless things happen in Hand of God, and since creator/writer Ben Watkins believes that tragedy is the most sincere way to convey a sense of reality, there’s no real reason to hold out for any sort of levity should you decide to endure all ten hours of this thing. In fact, the whole series itself is bent around a nearly unspeakable act: Judge Harris’s daughter-in-law Jocelyn (Alona Tal, doing the best she can) was raped in front of her husband PJ (Johnny Ferro), causing him to try to commit suicide which, as of the series’ first moments, left him alive but brain-dead, encouraging the traumatized judge to suffer a nervous breakdown and disappear for three days, during which he supposedly found Christ, joined the weird church Hand of God (natch), got naked, and jumped into a public fountain. Pernell is a shitty person (natch again), a philanderer and shady business bro, so his turn towards faith is of course one wrought with doubt, especially care of his steely wife Crystal (Dana Delany), who basically just marches around San Vicente in high heels, cleaning up the messes Pernell leaves in his wake. Delany, especially, is treated like garbage by the show’s writers, relegated to an Ice Queen role who’s only moments of visible depth involve her saying, “Enough,” into a mirror to stop herself from crying. Because she’s a tough lady—get it?!
The convoluted plot—which, honestly, is harder to describe than it is to understand—is only thickened by the entrance of the “reverend” Paul Curtis and his sexy lackey Alicia Hopkins (Julian Morris and Elizabeth McLaughlin, respectively, two alums from Pretty Little Liars), the leaders of Hand of God apt to use methods of which Jesus wouldn’t approve to further the influence of their nascent church. The two are of course big fans of Pernell, who credits his born-again revelation to their guidance, but their characters are so haphazardly written, it’s hard to tell what exactly they’re supposed to be. Complex Christians or barely-disguised hucksters? Hand of God portrays them as both: Alicia is willing to blow a banker to get him to cash a suspect check, and meanwhile Paul can quote scripture almost annoyingly quickly, the duo seemingly genuine about their desire to preach and spread the faith. Meanwhile, Mayor “Bobo” (Andre Royo, best known as Bubbles on The Wire) needs Pernell’s influence to push through a major development deal, and ex-convict JD (Garret Dillahunt, who is too good for this show) offers his services as faith-based thug to get all of Pernell’s vigilante justice dirty work done.
But hey, let’s go back to Ron Perlman naked in a fountain. As is typical of any show with this much drama to shoulder, there’s a lot to get through in its opening hour, and Hand of God charges ahead full steam to keep us apprised of what’s happening in the terrible lives of these terrible people. But Watkins and Forster either don’t trust their audience to be able to navigate subtle emotional cues, or they just have a knack for exquisitely idiotic expository dialogue—either way, when first we meet Crystal, as the doctor is briefing her on the condition of her recently-found husband, her response to the doctor’s comment about Pernell’s stable health is to snidely declare, “They found him naked in the middle of a fountain—can’t be all good.” She doesn’t laugh, she doesn’t look aghast, all she does is repeat the exact synopsis of the scene we just watched—the only other scene to transpire so far in this whole godforsaken show—because this is how Hand of God communicates.
By which I mean: stupidly. Hand of God thinks you’re stupid, but it is also stupid, and so it communicates in such a manner, reducing all moral or existential weight to plot points on the grand scheme of modern human misery. Look only to the nadir of the series’ first two episodes, a scene in which Pernell bullies the Chief of the San Vicente Police Department, Toby Clay (Maximiliano Hernández), into detaining one of his lowly beat cops, Officer Shane Caldwell (Wes Chatham), on the suspicion that he raped Jocelyn. Clay, of course, is reluctant to do so, since Pernell has obviously been acting pretty crazy lately, let alone that Pernell’s only reasoning for Shane’s guilt is a vision he had during an awards ceremony where he was given the City’s medal of honor or some shit—seriously, by that point, you’ll struggle to care, because, like I already said, Pernell is never once shown to be even a convincingly competent public servant—because Pernell experiences a number of visions he believes are given to him by God as evidence of his duty to wield justice for PJ. So anyway, Chief Clay is a browbeaten tool, which means Pernell gets what Pernell wants, and Shane is taken in for questioning.
But that’s not all: Behind the mirror-glass of the interrogation room stands Jocelyn, who Pernell has invited there to possibly ID her rapist. Yet, since her rapist was wearing a mask, Pernell’s faith is so sure that he basically orders Clay to order Shane to pull down his pants to show Jocelyn his penis, because that would be one thing that Jocelyn could identify.
At this point, if you’re watching this TV show, you’re something like only 45 minutes into the pilot, and already you should be exhausted by the glut of bloated melodrama incessantly shoveled into your sad, gaping eye-holes. Yet, should you not fully understand the weight of embarrassment and shame in a scene in which a police officer pulls down his pants to show his penis to a recent rape victim, at the forceful, near-violent behest of her high-powered, legally-sanctioned father-in-law, then Watkins allows you the reassurance of Tal delivering the following line with as much actorly pain as she can muster:
There are pieces of that night that I’ve been able to forget. But there are some pieces that I just don’t remember. What the penis…on the man…WHO RAPED ME…FOR AN HOUR IN FRONT OF MY HUSBAND LOOKS LIKE…is one of those thing I don’t remember.
I am in no way, I hope it’s clear, making fun of such a potentially horrifying scenario—what I am decrying is how utterly fumbled such a scene is in the hands of people who seem to sincerely want to make hard-hitting television. There is no grace, no sympathy, no intelligence, no understanding here—for anything, really: for trauma, for faith, for political corruption, for mental illness, for violence, or for the true capabilities of criminally underrated character actor Garret Dillahunt. I mean, I understand, man: You have to get what work you can. But you’re so much better than this.
As is Erykah Badu, who makes a cameo as Crystal’s magically wise pot dealer; as is even Lance Bass, who is only seen so far in one of Pernell’s visions as a sort of used-car-dealer type for exotic fish. His appearance in “Inside Voices” is so brief, he must have had additional scenes cut out of the aired episode—and, according to IMDB, he never reappears in future episodes—which seems to only emphasize how shoddily the “mystery” of Hand of God is handled, a mystery that limps forward into the third episode, dragging behind it only the most masochistic viewers. Which may be me; I can’t tell if I’m willing yet to go any further. Because I may not know what’s good for me—after two episodes, Hand of God stands tall as a mesmerizingly tone-deaf, morally inane, tepidly paced piece of horseshit that proves that maybe Amazon viewers shouldn’t always be allowed to pick their poison.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.